Unions have vowed to fight a plan by Belfast City Council which they claim will close leisure centres by the backdoor.
The council's strategic policy and resources committee yesterday passed a vote to hand over the running of its leisure centres to a trust – a move which has raised fears for their future.
Belfast City Council currently runs 10 leisure centres across the city, many of which are rundown and all of which currently run at a loss.
As part of the Review of Public Administration it will also take over the Robinson Centre, currently run by Castlereagh Borough, as part of the new bigger super council in May.
Leisure centres across Northern Ireland run at a loss. Belfast City Council has to subsidise its facilities by around £8m a year and is facing increasing competition from the private sector, which often offers cheaper options.
The average subsidy cost per visit to Belfast leisure centres is £4.88 compared to the UK average of £1.63.
The committee yesterday had the option of seeing the council continuing to run the leisure centres itself or privatising them.
It instead voted to set up a leisure trust operating model known as a non-profit distributing organisation.
The plan, which is up for ratification at the next full meeting of the council on March 3, will also see £105m pumped into leisure centres over the next decade.
And it aims to reduce the current £8m annual subsidy by £2m.
Committee chairman Gavin Robinson of the DUP said half-a-million of that saving will come from a saving on VAT by setting up the leisure trust operating model. He said the council can't get back VAT, but a non-profit-making organisation can.
However, he has not ruled out closing leisure centres.
A voluntary redundancy scheme is in place for staff.
Trade union Nipsa held a protest outside City Hall yesterday over concerns for council workers' jobs.
Representative Bumper Graham said 300 staff will be affected and claimed those who were union members were all opposed to the plans.
"What we want to see is leisure services modernised and upgraded, but to continue to be delivered by employees of Belfast City Council," he said.
"We will be taking all action available to us to oppose the externalisation of these jobs.
"Gavin Robinson can dress it up in whatever way he wants to, but at the end of the day what Gavin Robinson has done is vote for the externalisation of public service jobs. And he and his supporters will face the consequences of that," he added.
"We are going to fight to make sure this plan does not go ahead."
Mr Graham said the DUP's agenda was "quite clearly" to see leisure centres closed, and accused the party of being "anti-public services".
He said industrial action was likely.
Mr Robinson responded by saying the voluntary redundancy scheme had been popular and pointed to the magnitude of the proposed investment.
"Nowhere in the UK, Republic of Ireland or Europe is any local authority making a capital investment of £105m in its leisure services," he said.
"A Belfast leisure trust will not only secure the jobs, basic terms and conditions and pensions of existing employees, but will be a good employer for anyone joining the trust in the future."
SDLP group leader on Belfast City Council, Tim Attwood, gave a cautious welcome to the plan. He said the new model would "address the huge health inequalities currently existing in Belfast".
Belfast City Council's plan to invest £105m in its leisure services will be rolled out in three stages.
During the first stage, Olympia Leisure Centre will be refurbished as part of the work to Windsor Park.
Meanwhile, across the city Andersonstown Leisure Centre will receive an upgrade as part of the Casement Park development.
The second stage will involve Belfast City Council renewing the Robinson Centre and services in Twinbrook and Poleglass as parts of Castlereagh and Lisburn join with the new Belfast super council.
Least is known about the third stage of the rollout, which strategic policy and resources committee chairman Gavin Robinson told the Belfast Telegraph may involve "consolidation".
This is the stage during which some leisure centres are expected to be closed.
"The idea of closing leisure centres has been kicked around in council for 15 years, but Maysfield was the only one that was closed," he said.
"I think there is a recognition that there is a difficulty around closure.
"But, more importantly, there is a recognition that we cannot continue to fund leisure provision the way we do.
"Most of the leisure facilities are ageing – around 40 years old – so it's about time they had investment and a revitalised service for the city."
He added: "The conversation will continue over how best we can reshape and reinvest in the services we have.
"That might involve consolidation, it might involve rationalisation, or it might involve just improvements to what is already there."
By David Elliott
The inevitable has happened.
In an effort to keep my exercise options open, I've ended up temporarily with two gym memberships. One is about to go; which one I can't decide.
I've been a member of Belfast City Council leisure centres for six years and used a number of its facilities in that time, as the 'Boost' membership allows.
In the early days it was a 7am start at Avoniel. A change of workplace made the Grove a handier option – although it's now the Grove Wellbeing Centre, a state of being I rarely reach.
As anyone who's tried to keep going to a gym will testify, making the process as painless as possible is key, and when that meant cutting down the journey time from work to gym to seconds rather than 15 minutes, it seemed like the sensible option to join Pure Gym.
A new concept in gyms, it's run by a private company along the lines of a budget airline: it has everything you need, but keeps its costs low by doing away with the extras like towels, shower gel and free coffee.
It costs £18 a month, while the council membership costs £25 a month, and I'm in two minds which to cancel.
The plans put forward by the council for its leisure centres, which essentially will see their privatisation, is difficult to argue with. The fact I've 10 to choose from says a lot about the oversupply of leisure facilities in Northern Ireland, as does the fact all of them run at a loss.
It's not a given that our fitness levels should be subsidised by local government, and in any case Pure Gym and many others are an example of how gym provision can not only be profitable for the owners, but also cheap for the users.